Rain...rain...rain. Only two nights in New York and all it did was rain. My plans were to attend the Wednesday, 28 April 2004, 8:00 p.m. performance of Sly Fox. But, there under my apartment door was a note: "Call so we know you're here... dinner at 7:00." Seven? Tonight? I was meeting friends I hadn't seen in years, and somehow the date had changed. Not Thursday night dinner, but Wednesday. There went plans for seeing the play that night.
Well, Thursday night finally arrived and almost immediately I find that René is not performing Jethro Crouch. What!!? Turns out this night, and the three performances before it, René was the Sly Fox. René is the designated cover for Richard Dreyfuss, who normally plays the lead of Foxwell J. Sly. Mr. Dreyfuss that week was experiencing "severe muscle spasms" in his back and René, as his cover, was pressed into service with but a couple hours' notice. A cover, as it was explained to me, usually is a well-known actor, who normally is not in the cast but is on "stand-by" status for each performance. In comparison, an understudy may or may not be known (more likely the later) and usually is a member of the cast.
As René explained to me later, he had had no dress rehearsal in the role of Foxwell J. Sly. Therefore, his portrayal had to be as close to Richard's (movement wise) as possible, lest he run the risk of mixing up his fellow actors on stage. The role may not have been his, but René played the most energetic death-bedridden person I have ever seen, when he was not visible to his "heir" opportunists. You would see him jumping from his deathbed, striding robustly across his bedroom floor, and all the while expounding expressively about his numerous deathbed suitors. There were a few times when Eric Stoltz, who played Foxwell J. Sly's trusted servant Simon Able, looked like he wasn't quite sure just what René might do next, but those moments were few and the laughs were many.
Charles Antalosky, usually one of Foxwell J. Sly's servants, played the decrepit Crouch, René's usual role. His was a rather subdued Crouch compared to René's rendering of the role.
The most scene stealing went on during the second act court scene, most notably between Peter Scolari as the Chief of Police and Bronson Pinchot as Lawyer Craven. This night I'd have to say Peter won. Although René was most definitely the "ringmaster" as The Judge. Ohhh...and I can't forget Professor Cory as the Court Reporter. He may not have had many lines, but those he had he timed to perfection.
The evening was just plain fun. After the last curtain call was given, I made my way outside to the stage door in hopes of catching René. As I stood outside, wondering if indeed I was at the right door, a small crowd started gathering, and a few of the cast started trickling out. It was perhaps 10 or 15 minutes later when a tall gentlemen came striding out, bicycle in hand, wearing a bicycle helmet firmly atop his head. "René!" I shouted, half not sure, half surprised to see him attired in that way. He recognized me and graciously signed my program and we attempted to have a photo taken together, but the guy I asked to film us wasn't that knowledgeable about cameras. René worked the crowd and I just stood back watching, figuring, "Well at least I can wait and say goodbye." It was then that he totally surprised me and leaned over and said, "Walk with me...and we'll talk."
We did talk...but mainly I tried to listen. René talked about how exhausting the week had been in his new role as Foxwell J. Sly. All the costume changes, and then there was the Judge's wig. He was just sure it was going to fall off. He mentioned how he had conceived Jethro Crouch and how he wished I could see him in the role. He even showed me, by crouching down right there on the corner of West 47th Street and Eighth Avenue, how he portrayed Jethro Crouch physically. He had gotten the idea from the character's name. I'm only about five feet tall and there suddenly was René, right at my eye level.
As René rode off into the night I just knew I had to find some way to come back, before his time as Jethro Crouch was over.
It happened almost exactly six weeks later, on the 9th of June. I was back in New York City. Only two nights' stay again, but you make hay while the sun shines...and these two days it did.
What I didn't know until later was that, around the time of my arrival in New York, Sly Fox was celebrating its 100th performance at the matinee that day. An important milestone for any production.
Arriving at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, with my friend Terry in tow this time, I immediately checked the cast board for changes. No changes were posted. It was time to see René as Jethro Crouch.
The performance opened, and seeing Richard in the role of Foxwell J. Sly, not René, took a little time to get used to, but in short order I accepted the new Sly. The difference between the two might best be described thus: René's portrayal of the character was all business, while Richard's portrayal gave me more a feeling of "the game's a foot," which caused René's portrayal to feel darker then Richard's. Both, though, were a joy to watch.
The first time I saw René in the character of Jethro Crouch he seemed to burst onto the stage. The physical transformation was so "right on" for this character... crouching with cane in hand. And, ohhh anyone who got in his way! René's facial expressions, most especially in a scene at Crouch's place of business (with actress Rachel York as Miss Fancy) had myself and the rest of the audience rolling.
I didn't think the courtroom scene could be funnier, but it was...and this night Bronson Pinchot as Lawyer Craven won the scene-stealing award for the night. The show stopper (and the show did stop) happened during an exchange between Richard Dreyfuss and René. René's delivery of a line had Richard in stitches. René had to repeat the line three times before Richard managed to say his line and the show was able to continue. The audience really didn't help because after a few minutes we were laughing harder then Richard...it was truly contagious.
After the performance, Terry and I and some other fans had a few minutes to visit with Rene. We all talked and laughed, much of the conversation centering on René's earlier performances in other productions when he was a younger man. As I stood listening, I heard a gentle male voice behind me ask, "Do you know René?" I turned and it was Peter Scolari, who played the Chief of Police. I acknowledged that I did, and told Peter how much I enjoyed the evening and his performance as well. It was a very brief encounter but a sweet one.
We asked just what happened in the courtroom scene to set Richard laughing. René told us it didn't happen often, but sometimes an expression of René's would just get Richard laughing.
René graciously stood for photographs and signed a baseball cap I had brought. As a gift, I gave him a new bicycle seat. When I had last seen him, back in late April, his seat looked in need of replacement. Since I had recently purchased a bicycle, I had a guy's seat in need of a home. (Why is it bicycle seats these days are all made with guys in mind?) Anyway, the seat now has a new home.
We all wished René well and I repeated what I had told René that first night: "Be careful riding that bike!!"
Thanks, René, for two great nights of theater.